by Eric Althoff
“Keeper of the Fire”
Directors: Raymond Telles, David L. Brown, Louis Dematteis
Poetry is the currency of culture, and in this absorbing half-hour documentary, the poet Alejandro Murguía waxes on not only his years fighting for social justice, but on how the Beat generation (Ginsburg, Kerouac, etc.) bred a sense of rebellion against the way things “always” had been. Murguía was born in America but his family moved to Mexico when he was very young, so when they returned to California, he had to learn English—but soon had such a command of the language that he used it to fire up an ever-expanding circle of admirers. Little surprise he was drawn to San Francisco, where so many movements took hold in the ‘60s. We even see him firing syllables at City Hall in recent years, as rapid gentrification has made the city all but unaffordable to the poor and long-tenured residents.
A fascinating look at a true American original.
“Leave the Door Open”
Director: Ümran Safter
Mehmet Munir Ertegun was only the second Turkish ambassador to the United States after its founding in the wake of the First World War, and perhaps because he represented the new nation’s push toward secularism, Ertegun was able to push some boundaries in Washington. Accordingly, Ertegun introduced his two sons, Ahmet and Nesuhi, to jazz music, first while posted in London and then as ambassador in Washington, when the U.S. capital was still extremely segregated. Director Ümran Safter provides a fascinating look at Jazz Age D.C., a city straddling the North-South divide, and thus the perfect town to begin, however tentatively, mixing of the races in not only performing jazz, but enjoying it together.
Ambassador Ertegun got around D.C.’s Jim Crow-era proscriptions against race-mixing by hosting jazz sessions at his residence—ergo, not on American soil. His sons, Ahmet and Nesuhi, kept their father’s legacy alive when they founded Atlantic Records.
It’s a little-known story even to those of us in the capital region, and one that needs telling.
Director: John Gray
You don’t need a ton of money, or even a lengthy runtime, to give audiences a good scare. In less than 10 terrifying minutes, writer-director John Gray gives us an “Exorcist”-esque tale of a teenage boy (Paul Luke Bonenfant) and his mother (Colleen Clinton), who are being terrorized
by an evil demon from beyond. Thrillingly realized, and with some really great jump moments, Gray creates a claustrophobic tale of things that go bump in the night.
“A Family That Steals Dogs”
Director: John C. Kelley
Grief knows no limits or bounds, and even trying to express it to an outside party can be frustrating. Perhaps that’s why John C. Kelley chose to animate his mourning for an older brother, who died suddenly at age 44. Kelley’s surreal animation commences with his narration about how his brother and family used to take in all manner of dogs, and this he bookends with his time grieving his brother in a cabin in Georgia. Then he encounters another canine. Is it a message from beyond?
A fascinating memoir told in intriguing form, “A Family That Steals Dogs” is heartrending in its formal simplicity that stands in for that most awful of human experiences.
“The Bears on Pine Ridge”
Director: Noel Bass
Yvonne “Tiny” Decory has one of the most difficult missions out there. The elder of South Dakota’s Oglala Pine Ridge Reservation is trying to head off the Indian community’s suicide epidemic, particularly among young people. She sees kids as young as 7 with suicidal ideation, and suicide attempts among teens are tragically common—many of those attempts successful. This, then, is just the latest iteration of the long, painful legacy of the U.S. government’s policy of forced relocation, going all the way back to the fateful massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.
Director Noel Bass takes us on a journey of Decory’s community, where shabby trailers house the hopeless, who fall victim to alcohol, drugs and taking their own lives. (We aren’t surprised to learn the reservation’s unemployment rate is over 80 percent!) But Decory offers suicide survivors a place in her “Bear Troupe,” in which young people dress up in animal costumes and perform for other children and even at sporting events.
Some she can save, some she cannot. We meet a 17-year-old named Tyra with fresh wounds on her wrists, and who has lost friends to suicide. Economic opportunities in Pine Ridge are few and far between, with one of director Bass’s subjects opining darkly that the reservations were made for “the Indian to die out on.” Ergo, those whom the armies could not slaughter with guns and swords or disease were condemned to slow deterioration—even more than a century after the final Sioux uprising was put down.
Tragic yet hopeful, Bass’s film is a stark reminder that the white man’s treatment of Native Americans—as much, if not more so, than his enslavement of African Americans—remains this nation’s original, enduring sin.
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